History and travel books often make reference to European market towns. As far back as the period we call the Dark Ages and beyond, even to the time of the Romans, certain towns hosted weekly or daily markets. The arrival of farmers, artisans, and merchants of all kinds descending on these towns with their goods and news of what was going on in other, distant, places, drew in people from miles around for the half shopping trip, half social gathering that came to become known as market day.
Market towns still exist all over France, and indeed all of Europe. In cities like Caen, Saumur, and Angers, and large towns like Sarlat, there is a day (or more than one) of the week when a market takes place as it has for centuries. No one knows how many centuries La Fleche has been a market town, but everyone in La Fleche knows that Wednesday is market day.
Every Tuesday night, in a ritual with roots extending centuries, on the roundabout entering town a sign goes up, announcing the road running along the Loir River next day is closed after one am. No driving on the road, no parking in the lot along the riverfront next day until one pm, because sometime around zero-dark-30 merchants begin arriving, and a bustling marketplace will pop up in the dark, early hours of the morning like a mushroom after rain. Before the sun comes up it is Wednesday, Market Day in La Fleche. It will bustle until noon, when quickly the market, the merchants, and all signs of them will be gone. The merchants move on to another town, another market, tomorrow. The street and lots are hosed down, cars resume parking in the lots, and it will be as if the market was never there.
As town markets go, La Fleche is small. Larger towns like Saumur and Caen seem to go on forever. Still, it fills two streets with an astonishing array of merchants, most in the same spot each week–fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and seafood of a quality unknown in most stores back home, prepared foods of all kinds, from couscous and roasted chicken with potatoes cooked in the drippings, sausages, meats, jams and honey, and preserves, to household items like kitchenware, pots and pans, utensils, clothing, shoes, and cheeses, glorious cheeses! Oh, and hot, fresh bread, pastries, and our favorite–chouquettes, miniature pate a choux pastries (that stuff around eclair filling) baked on the spot, then sprinkled with a special crunchy sugar bits. Always the first priority for us: find the truck with the chouquettes, $1.10 for six, but who buys just six?
Surely the French are the most social people in the world, and market day is more than a shopping excursion. It is a social event. One dares not go to market to make a surgical strike at top speed, because the narrow aisles are clogged with groups of folks exchanging busses, bonjours and ca va’s, catching up on local news and gossip, amid the lines queued up in front of the merchant’s stalls, trucks, and tables.
We try to never miss market day unless the weather is totally dreadful, because it is just so much fun. What makes it so is the merchants. These people purely enjoy what they do. Their joy and enthusiasm is infectious. They laugh, they joke, they banter, and most of all they take enormous pride in their products and in their work.
If you want to buy two melons (speaking of which, I discovered the most delicious cantaloupe-like melon I have ever tasted. Called rouge-gorge, it is deep orange red inside and ridiculously delicious). The merchant will ask you when you plan to eat them, and you say, “one tonight and one on Saturday.” He will pick two melons, examine them closely, then mark one with a magic marker. “This one tonight,” he will say, “This one on Saturday.” He is right.
The cheese merchant, who we love, is a really funny guy who brings to market an astonishing array of small-batch cheeses, as Karen and I joke with each other, made from the milk of cows and sheep fed by hand, massaged daily by virgins. In reality, they are cheeses one would never ever see outside France.
The French numbering system is maddeningly difficult for English speakers to master, especially when numbers are being thrown around by fast-speaking merchants with a mind-numbing array of local dialects. The French largely know and understand this, so when a purchase is made and they tell you what the cost is, they also display the register tape so you can see it and comprehend. But our cheese guy sometimes says he’ll only charge us whole euros and not the change because it’s too hard for us. Then he’ll tell the rest of his customers lined up that he could charge us anything and we wouldn’t know…he winks at us and everybody laughs, including us.
A couple of folks in our French family only like cow’s cheese (go figure). We were buying cheese for a party and were specifically avoiding goat cheese on this occasion, when he looked askance at us. We told him our guests didn’t like goat cheese and he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Then they are not French!” We think he is hilarious.
Our spice lady, meanwhile, is just whacked, but in a nice way. She lays out a huge array of spices, and like a medieval alchemist, darts from one bowl or bag to another, assembling a witches brew of spices that she says, “This one is for le soup, c’est fantastique!” or, “This one is spectac” with the chicken! It’s verrry good!” And you buy it and you love it and a week or two later you go to get more, and you swear that as she scrambles around from spice to spice that her recipe isn’t the same. She’s enormously entertaining, interspersing a little English with a local dialect from somewhere in France, us barely able to keep up.
I confess I had a moment that I thought was special and perhaps significant. Well, it was for me.
When we walk through the market we pass dozens of clumps of folks in small gatherings. They buss, they hug, and they talk. They hail one another at a distance, gather in a knot, and talk. As a visitor, one tends to see this and feel conspicuously an outsider. They are French, they are local, and we are not. We are just passing through. Over time we become familiar to some of the merchants, and we develop a little familiarity and relationship. But still….
Then one day, walking through the market, I hear, “Tom! Tom! Karen!”
We turn and see Genevieve and Michel waving to us. We wave back, meet up in the middle of the market, exchange busses, and ca va’s and have a brief but enthusiastic chat. As we turn and go our separate ways I can’t help but feel something slightly amazing has happened. In a very tiny but significant way we have crossed a threshold. We were no longer just looking in on life in La Fleche. We were, if only briefly, a part of it.